A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law“He is the devout man who considers and serves God in everything and who makes all of his life an act of devotion by doing everything in the name of God and under such rules as are conformable to His glory.”
(Note: I read the 1955 abridged edition, which was edited by a group of laymen to make it more accessible to the 20th century reader.)
William Law’s book, published in England in 1728, was written in a time and society in which just about everyone professed to be a Christian and attended church. This may seem like a good thing, but during this time, the Christian Church in England (and America) was in a state of spiritual decline. Law observed that there were many nominal Christians who appeared to value the teachings of the Bible and attended church on Sundays but were not serious about living out Christ’s teachings in their every day life. This book is not intended to tell the reader how to become a Christian, but rather, how to be a “good” Christian. Law is basically challenging those who profess the name of Christ to take it seriously and to live out what they claim to be. A Serious Call may feel a bit moralistic or legalistic at times, but it needs to be kept in mind that the author is not implying that by living a good life a person can earn his salvation or even earn more favor with God. It is a reminder that if I am truly a Christian, I am “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ” and should “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which I have been called” (Rom. 6:4; Eph 4:1).
Throughout the book, Law uses several words to describe what the Christian lifestyle should be. The words religious, devout, and pious are used interchangeably to mean godly or holy, referring to a lifestyle that is lived intentionally for God’s glory. Sure, there are some people who may try to live a good or moral life, but if they are not doing it in obedience to and for the glory of God, then it cannot be called holy living. If they are relying in their own ability to do so, it is also not pleasing or glorifying to God, because the Bible says all our righteous works are like filthy rags.
The scriptures teach that if God has redeemed and saved a person, he is a new creature – he should be different: different than he was before, and different than unbelievers. The author observes that if everyone who claimed to be a Christian actually intended and made an effort to live like one, it would make a difference in society.
Law asserts that holy living is not just for some Christians, but for all. A minister need not be more spiritual than a Christian laborer or business man. It should be the life goal, purpose, and desire of every true Christian to live a holy life. Just as the Apostle Paul refers to “running the race”, Law comments, “As the race which is set before [us] is a race of holiness, purity, and heavenly affection, [our] everyday diet has only this one end: to make [our bodies] fitter for this spiritual race.” In having this perspective, everything I do should be done to strengthen, equip, and enable me to run the race better.
Law submits that a person’s devotion to God should not be limited only to his private thoughts or religious activities – it should be evident in every aspect of his daily life. Do I just act religious when in a church setting, or is it truly my desire and intention to live for and please God in all my words and actions? I may not proclaim outright to everyone I associate with that I am a Christian, but when a neighbor, co-worker, fellow student, or customer does learn that I am a Christian, what is his or her reaction? Do they say, “Oh, I thought you might be a Christian; or, Oh, that’s not surprising.” Or do they say, “What – really? I had no idea!”
A Christian’s life shouldn’t be divided into two areas: sacred/religious and secular/worldly. If we are holy and set apart, this means all aspects of life – school, work, family, play, leisure – are to be lived as unto God. Godliness should affect our use of all these things, every day of the week.
If we would make real progress in religion, we must not only abhor gross and notorious sins, but we must regulate the innocent and lawful parts of our behavior, and put the most common and allowed actions of life under the rules of discretion and piety.
While many Christians manage to avoid engaging in blatant and gross sinful activity, they fail to make holy use of the good and lawful things that God has given and that are part of life, such as our intellect, time, health, resources, and relationships.
If you would be a good Christian, there is but one way – you must live wholly unto God. You must live according to the wisdom that comes from God. You must act according to right judgments of the nature and value of things. You must live in the exercise of holy and heavenly affections. And you must use all the gifts of God to his praise and glory.
After a general discussion of the importance of holy living, Law addresses the use of resources, the pursuit of worldly vs. spiritual desires, and contentment. Here the author uses fictional character sketches to show the difference between a godly, religious life and a worldly one. He lists as some of the benefits of living a life devoted to God to be greater contentment, peace, and enjoyment of God. He proposes that, as a person desires more of God and less of this world, he will become more satisfied and thankful, not less so. He writes,
How ignorant are they of the nature of religion, of the nature of man, and of the nature of God who think a life of strict piety and devotion to God to be a dull, uncomfortable state – when it is so plain and certain that there is neither comfort nor joy to be found in anything else!
Consider all the things people seek happiness from, what Law calls “inventions of happiness”: work/success, beauty, prosperity, health, knowledge/education, fun/entertainment, and we could go on. People go from one to the next in search of fulfillment, but none of these truly brings happiness or contentment, which is exactly the conclusion King Solomon came to in Ecclesiastes.
Law then turns to specific disciplines that the Christian who is striving towards holiness will give attention to. He gives the benefits of private times of prayer and intercession, hymn singing, and confession. One thing that today’s Christian reader will find a bit too structured is Law’s suggestion to implement different activities of devotion at certain times of the day. For example, he says the subject of our first morning prayers should be praise and thanksgiving, the end of our day is most appropriate for prayers of repentance and confession, and at night as you go to bed, “the subject that is most proper for your prayers…is death.” Law admits that some people will think that, for the typical person, these times of prayer may come too frequently throughout a busy day, and so he adds this qualifier: he is not saying this approach to prayer and devotion is absolutely necessary, but that it is recommended as being the best.
He also talks about the discipline or practice of humility, which needs to be taught from a young age because it is an attitude that opposes our human nature. Other subjects discussed include instruction in the things of God, love for all men, and conformity to God’s will.
Here are a few things I took away from reading this book that I intend to apply in my own personal life:
- Establish a space that is set aside (ie. “sacred”) only for times of prayer and devotion, a sort of “chapel” area. At first I didn’t think I would be able to pull this off because it seems like every area of our home already has a use. But then I thought of the upstairs loft area that was set up as a little living room area for my mother-in-law when she moved in with us a year ago, so I asked her if I could use that for my devotional space.
- Begin times of prayer by reading a Psalm.
- Add the singing of hymns into my devotional time (awkward to do aloud if anyone else is within listening range!) Fortunately we have several hymnbooks in our home, so I am putting one with my other devotional materials.
- Confess specific sins daily to God. (I must admit I haven’t been faithful in this area – not on a daily basis and not always naming specific personal sins.)
- Think of and pray concerning death when going to sleep each night. (Did you ever think about the fact that every night when you go to sleep there is the possibility of not seeing another day of life? Really puts life in perspective.)
Law’s discussion of striving for holy living does create some tension. He suggests at one point that if I really have the desire and intention of pleasing God and am using “the ordinary means of grace,” I would be empowered to avoid falling into regular habits of sin. This almost sounds like he’s saying that if we really want to and work at it faithfully, doing everything we are supposed to do, that we could become perfect. There are some who do teach this idea of “spiritual perfectionism,” but I don’t believe that’s Biblical. We know that we will never be perfect while living in our mortal, sin-tainted bodies here on earth. But we cannot use that as an excuse for our failings and weaknesses, and just remain content to leave those issues unaddressed. We are exhorted to “work out our salvation” (which does not mean to do what we can to save ourselves) – we need to be diligent in dealing with our sin, not lazy and negligent. When we come to the end of our life, we should not be satisfied merely with the fact that we managed to refrain from murder, adultery and theft.
William Law emphasizes the intent and efforts of the believer to live a holy life – to strive towards making ourselves “fit for heaven,” and that our goal should be “to die as free from sin and as exalted in virtue as we can.” The focus is primarily on the responsibility of the Christian rather than on the completed work of Christ on his behalf. In my opinion, not enough is said about the fact that, when we stand before God we will be robed in Christ’s righteousness and not our own good works. The balance is that, in obedience to God’s call to “be holy even as I am holy,” and to mortify sin in my life on a daily basis, I must be constantly mindful that Christ lived the perfect, sinless life on my behalf, and offered Himself in my place as a blameless sacrifice to the Father. Praise God that it is on this basis that I will be accepted by God in the last day!
Final words of exhortation to the Christian from William Law:
“Nourish your soul with good works, give it peace in solitude, get it strength in prayer, make it wise with reading, enlighten it by meditation, make it tender with love, sweeten it with psalms and hymns, and comfort it with frequent reflections upon future glory.”